Warriors’ legendary, aging dynasty may have finally received death blow in humiliating Play-In loss to Kings

SACRAMENTO — If you want the rainbow, you’ve got to put up with the rain. But what if it never stops raining?

Though it doesn’t happen at the same time for everyone, sooner or later we’re all confronted by our own mortality — the idea that the trough will never again become a crest — and rarely is the process pretty.

The Golden State Warriors have endured plenty of aches and pains, some harsher and more biting than others, since launching their assault on the basketball world a decade ago. All of the bumps along the road were acceptable because the specter of glory — a return to the NBA mountaintop — was ever present on the horizon. Even reports of the demise of the Warriors’ dynasty following subpar seasons in 2020 and 2021 were greatly exaggerated, proven by their surprising “remember us?” title in 2022.

This feels different.

What the Warriors experienced in Tuesday’s humiliating 118-94 Play-In loss to the Sacramento Kings at Golden 1 Center, in which they were dominated in every facet of both basketball and physicality, seems like a period rather than a comma.

A knockout blow. A funeral. A eulogy.

“We’ve been really blessed here with some amazing players and multiple championships and Finals appearances — the highest of highs,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said from the postgame media table, which might as well have been a pulpit. “This is the flip side. This is life. This is how it works. You don’t get to stay on top forever.”

The Warriors appeared despondent after the loss. They had just been eliminated from the postseason, sure, but the emotions ran deeper than that. Kerr waxed poetic about the love and gratitude he feels for his players. Draymond Green was uncharacteristically subdued, occasionally staring blankly into the sea of reporters before answering a question. Stephen Curry, ever the professional, gave his usual, calculated answers, but used the words “frustrating” and “disappointing” to describe not only Tuesday’s loss, but the entire “emotional roller coaster” of a season.

Each Warrior who spoke after the game said that they still feel this group has the ability to win a championship. How that’s going to happen, however, is a murky proposition.

Golden State’s chemistry this season, by all accounts, was tremendous. They closed the year with a 27-12 record, went into the postseason hot and had seemingly unlocked their potential with Green at center. Jonathan Kuminga made the third-year leap and they got much more from their rookies than they ever expected.

And yet they still got bounced in the 9-10 Play-In game.

What exactly is going to get better next season? The team’s core players are in their mid-to-late 30s. Out of the young players, perhaps only Kuminga looks ready to become a star, and he was still inconsistent. Despite having Chris Paul, who Kerr said made the non-Steph minutes perhaps the most pleasurable they’ve ever been, Curry was still run into the ground as the only Warrior capable of consistently creating offense for both himself and others.

Perhaps most importantly, the Western Conference isn’t getting any easier. The two best players on the reigning champion Denver Nuggets haven’t even turned 30 yet. The top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder are one of the league’s youngest teams. The Minnesota Timberwolves‘ rising superstar, Anthony Edwards, is 22.

A season with 46 wins got the Warriors the 10-seed and a swift postseason elimination this year. At this point, the ceiling for next season can’t realistically be higher than what? Four? Five?

“You’re either getting better or you’re getting worse, and I think the league is improving,” Green said after Tuesday’s loss. “I think the league has improved and it’s gonna continue to get better. So we’ve got to figure it out.”

Step one of figuring it out is general manager Mike Dunleavy Jr., ownership and the front office deciding how much they’re willing to pay Klay Thompson. The unrestricted free agent ended his season with more than respectable numbers — 18 points per game on 38% 3-point shooting — but his zero-point, 0-for-10 performance (the first scoreless postseason game of his career) in Tuesday’s loss to the Kings was just the latest in a series of disappearing acts in big games over the past two seasons, as his tenuous grip on the his teammates’ trust — on the court, at least — continues to loosen.

Kerr, Curry and Green were unanimous in the idea of bringing Thompson back, but what else are they going to say? This is a man, a brother, who has been through it all and is still one of the fiercest competitors in the league. Even if his consistency and mobility will continue to slip, there’s no reason they wouldn’t want Thompson to remain part of the organization.

Kerr mentioned that Thompson’s spacing is essential for the offense, since they lack shooting depth despite their top-end marksmen being elite. Green insinuated that, even if Warriors brass doesn’t necessarily think re-signing Thompson is the most prudent move basketball-wise, they would still do it as a reward for his years of service to the Bay.

“I have no reason to think that our ownership group aren’t going to take care of us the way we’ve taken care of this organization,” Green said. “Ultimately that decision will be Klay’s. There’s a lot of organizations that will only do what’s best for the organization. This ain’t one of them.”

With Green, Curry and Kerr under contract, the biggest remaining question mark besides Thompson is the future of Paul, who only has $16 million of his $30 million salary guaranteed for next season. While every Warrior at some point or another has acknowledged Paul’s tremendous benefit both on and off the court, he’s a 6-foot, soon-to-be 39-year-old on a team that severely lacks size and quickness. Kerr said it was tough to get Paul the minutes he wanted to because his stature makes it difficult to play him for long stretches with the team’s best players (i.e. Curry).

So dealing Paul is definitely an option, but does anything you get for him really move the needle? Same goes for Andrew Wiggins, whose trade value severely diminished during a lackluster season. Trading Kuminga seems off the table given his ascent, and packaging the other young guys (Brandin Podziemski, Trayce Jackson-Davis and Moses Moody) doesn’t seem like enough of a haul to bring in another star.

The Warriors seem to think that running it back with the same core can yield another championship, but the NBA’s Magic 8 Ball seems to be telling them “Outlook Not So Good.” Even with minor tweaks this offseason, we may have already seen Curry, Thompson, Green and Kerr raising the Larry O’Brien trophy together for the last time.

As intense of competitors as they all are, you have to wonder if they realize, deep down, that their best chance to once again win at the highest level might come after they separate.

“At the end of the day, I just want to win. I know that’s fully possible,” Curry said after the Warriors’ season ended on Tuesday night. “I know this summer there’s gonna be a lot of conversations and trying to set up ourselves to win — whatever that means. I hope that’s the outcome.”

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